Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain / Edition 1

Paperback (Print)
Buy New
Buy New from
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $2.87
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 88%)
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (13) from $2.87   
  • New (4) from $6.98   
  • Used (9) from $2.87   


In Circular Breathing, George McKay, a leading chronicler of British countercultures, uncovers the often surprising ways that jazz has accompanied social change during a period of rapid transformation in Great Britain. Examining jazz from the founding of George Webb’s Dixielanders in 1943 through the burgeoning British bebop scene of the early 1950s, the Beaulieu Jazz Festivals of 1956–61, and the improvisational music making of the 1960s and 1970s, McKay reveals the connections of the music, its players, and its subcultures to black and antiracist activism, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, feminism, and the New Left. In the process, he provides the first detailed cultural history of jazz in Britain.

McKay explores the music in relation to issues of whiteness, blackness, and masculinity—all against a backdrop of shifting imperial identities, postcolonialism, and the Cold War. He considers objections to the music’s spread by the “anti-jazzers” alongside the ambivalence felt by many leftist musicians about playing an “all-American” musical form. At the same time, McKay highlights the extraordinary cultural mixing that has defined British jazz since the 1950s, as musicians from Britain’s former colonies—particularly from the Caribbean and South Africa—have transformed the genre. Circular Breathing is enriched by McKay’s original interviews with activists, musicians, and fans and by fascinating images, including works by the renowned English jazz photographer Val Wilmer. It is an invaluable look at not only the history of jazz but also the Left and race relations in Great Britain.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Circular Breathing is a marvelous book. I admire George McKay’s knowledge of jazz, the British left, and cultural history. His ability to blend those elements is to my knowledge unique and unprecedented, and his interviews with jazz musicians enrich immeasurably the story that he is telling.”—Dennis Dworkin, author of Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left, and the Origins of Cultural Studies

Circular Breathing is quite simply the best book so far on jazz in Britain. George McKay acts as a cultural archaeologist, digging up traces of a ninety-year musical presence and writing them back into history. He comments acutely on a music which can be peripheral and exclusive but which he rightly sees as vital to the story of Britain’s social and political evolution.”—Andrew Blake, author of The Land without Music: Music, Culture, and Society in Twentieth-Century Britain

James J. Nott

“George McKay's book plugs a significant scholarly gap and provides a much-needed cultural history of jazz in Britain. . . . This book is a hugely impressive, detailed, and fascinating cultural history of jazz in Britain and should be recommended not only to cultural historians but also to historians of the Cold War, the British Left, and those interested in race relations and national identity in twentieth-century Britain.”
Gordon J. Marshall

“McKay has written an excellent study of one of the many new cultures and cultural spaces of postwar England. His emphasis on space and culture, gender and space, and race and identity make this a strong work well worth the time to read. . . . [H]is book places the playing and study of jazz music in clear class terms as few scholars have before him.”
Stephanie Hanson

"It is only by reading Circular Breathing, George McKay's skillful examination of race relations, gender issues, and the Left in relation to British jazz, that we can understand why British jazz wasn't at the center of the European free-jazz revolution. . . . [V]aluable and imaginative scholarship."
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822335733
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 11/28/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 376
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 9.04 (h) x 1.02 (d)

Meet the Author

George McKay is a professor of cultural studies at the University of Salford in England. He is the author of Glastonbury: A Very English Fair and Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties; the editor of DiY Culture: Party & Protest in Nineties Britain; and a coeditor of Community Music: A Handbook and Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural, and Political Protest.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt


By George McKay

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3560-3

Chapter One

New Orleans Jazz, Protest (Aldermaston), and Carnival (Beaulieu) [A] sociology of jazz would be an absurd conception, and yet ... why should the Aldermaston marchers have followed a jazz band? -PHILIP LARKIN, reviewing Eric Hobsbawm, The Jazz Scene, 1959 (in Palmer and White 1999, 41; emphasis in original)

Focusing on the jazz boom of the 1950s in Britain, which primarily revolved around traditional and revivalist musics of early New Orleans, this chapter looks at a particular moment in the relation between popular music and social protest, and at a specific founding annual event in the subcultural history of pop festivals. The research has a number of aims. It is to reconsider a form of jazz dismissed or misrepresented by many critics and academics. Here as elsewhere I employ material from personal interviews with activists, musicians, and fans of the time, focusing on the political development of the New Orleans parade band in Britain, which I present as a leftist marching music of the streets. I seek to shift the balance slightly in the study of a social movement organization (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, or CND, founded in 1958), from considering itin terms of its "official" history toward its cultural contribution and innovation. CND's early subcultural politics mainly happened during the annual three-day Aldermaston protest marches, to a soundtrack of jazz and folk (see McKay 2003). It is to look at the other contemporaneous social manifestation of jazz and carnival in Britain, at the negotiation and contestation of youth groups and music enthusiasts surrounding the earliest jazz festivals at Beaulieu, Hampshire (which began in 1956) (see McKay 2004). Many jazz fans and musicians were involved in both carnivalesque moments. What do Aldermaston and Beaulieu together tell us about the meanings of jazz for British youth and left politics during that decade? Larkin's characteristic contrariness in moving through the "absurd" to the astute-a "sociology of jazz"-indicates a wider theoretical and historical uncertainty in the fragmentary readings that are available on traditional and revivalist jazz in Britain of the 1950s, and that I want to counter. Finally, I want also to look further at some of the questions around Americanization and jazz music, in terms of resistance, imitation, and the idea of the past.

Definitions are necessary. According to George Melly, there developed two clearly identifiable forms-or factions-of musical retrospection in Britain, both white. The first was traditional jazz, looking to explore the music of New Orleans before the First World War. Its most visible proponent was the purist New Orleans cornetist and bandleader Ken Colyer, whose "wavery vibrato and basic melodic approach was based on Bunk Johnson. He sounded, and intended to sound, like an old man who had never left New Orleans when they closed Storyville" (Melly 1965, 46). For David Boulton, "the avowed policy of [Colyer's groups] was to re-create the archaic jazz of the Storyville period" (Boulton 1958, 79). The second was revivalist jazz, which preferred Chicago jazz of the 1920s, clustered around Louis Armstrong. Melly asked: "What was the difference between revivalist and traditional jazz? ... What the revivalists thought of as 'New Orleans Jazz' was the music of Armstrong, Morton and Oliver-New Orleans musicians but based on, and recorded in, Chicago during the Prohibition era.... The basic difference between the two sounds is that revivalist jazz includes arranged passages, solos, and considerable emphasis on the individual musician, whereas traditional jazz is all ensemble" (Melly 1965, 160-61).

A particular British pop moment saw the so-called trad boom, in which bandleaders like Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball, and Chris Barber featured high in the charts in Britain and sometimes in the United States, in full swing in the few years on either side of the decade (see Berg and Yeomans 1962; Matthew 1962; Wallis 1987). The trad boom's subcultural and commercial success rivaled that of rock 'n' roll for a while, the hit records beginning with Monty Sunshine playing "Petite Fleur" with Chris Barber's Band in 1959. This had been preceded by the skiffle craze, during which Lonnie Donegan had a hit with "Rock Island Line" in 1956 and Chas McDevitt played his hit "Freight Train" on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on American television in June 1957 (McDevitt 1997, 102). Events such as the Beaulieu Jazz Festivals contributed to as well as benefited from the new and mediated music craze. Not too much imagination was required to jump on the, well, bandwagon: the BBC broadcast a series featuring live bands called "Trad Fad," while the final boom year of 1962 saw books like Brian Matthew's Trad Mad and Richard Lester's film It's Trad, Dad!

On the few occasions when British traditional and revivalist jazz has been discussed by academics, the orthodoxy has constructed the music and the movement as conservative, retrospective, unimaginative, and worse. Iain Chambers foregrounds "the hermetic conservatism of revivalism" (1986, 148), the "homely" nature of British traditional jazz, and the CND beatnik style, which for him is neither as "finger-snapping" as Kerouac's Beats nor as "sharp" as the mods will be in a few years' time. He continues: "The domestic mixture of New Orleans jazz with cups of tea, warm beer and lawn-mowed suburbia rarely pushed British bohemia towards the spirituality of modernism and movement" (Chambers 1986, 148). Rather too easily positioning the politics of traditional and revivalist jazz within the cozy space of English counter-modernisms of the kind expressed by George Orwell or, later, Prime Minister John Major, Chambers offers a dismissive gloss which, among other effects, obscures the music's political moments. Nor have rapid evaluations helped the music's cause: in Kevin Morgan's view, "the jazz revival ... ended in the awful apotheosis of the Trad Boom" (1998, 138), while for Eric Hobsbawm "the New Orleans revival was essentially a non-musical phenomenon" (1998, 241; my emphasis). Neil Nehring zones keenly in on the innate conservatism of traditional and revivalist jazz during what he calls "the puerile fifties" (Nehring 1993, 210), his suspicions retrospectively confirmed by some musicians' actions twenty years on (though I am not sure these jazzes are unique in pop music in featuring musicians who politically disappoint with age, with waning popularity). That Nehring dislikes the music so intensely seems only to confirm (his pleasure in making) his political judgment about "hideous trad New Orleans jazz by the likes of Acker Bilk": "It seems fitting that trad jazz, the favourite music of [Philip Larkin and] the Movement, would in its death throes invoke the Edwardian period, seemingly confirming how wrong the literary were about both popular music and English society. (By the late seventies [1976], former trad jazz stars Kenny Ball and Chris Barber played benefits for Margaret Thatcher, their politics consistent with the conservatism of that music's proponents, literary and otherwise, in the fifties.)" (Nehring 1993, 208).

The critical problem here is that Nehring wants to read the trad boom with later eyes-as a residual culture rather than one capable of possessing an emergent, even oppositional phase. Helen Taylor employs a similar problematic framework in Circling Dixie: Contemporary Southern Culture through a Transatlantic Lens, one of the very few academic books to include any detail about the extraordinary contribution of Ken Colyer to British jazz. In a short section on the export culture of New Orleans music, Taylor looks at traditional jazz-but Colyer is presented through the prism of the Ken Colyer Trust, set up by aging fans in the year he died, 1988. Taylor's version of traditional jazz is represented by "a particular group of white Englishmen: middle class, financially comfortable, having repaid their mortgages and now with time on their hands" (Taylor 2001, 113). The "sweet sadness" of "nostalgic emotional appeal" is the defining feature for Taylor (2001, 115, 113), and she emphasizes that the "Colyer Trust musicians and members are not very interested in the racial and social history of this music or its evolution into other forms; their concern is with saving it as a pure music, undiluted and unhybridized" (Taylor 2001, 115). The significance of this critique is that Taylor herself presents a depoliticized sweet sadness: by looking only at the trust in the 1990s rather than, say, also the musician's projects of the 1950s and 1960s, Taylor misses the more complex situation, in which Colyer's own Omega Brass Band, for example-as I show below-frequently appeared at left-wing demonstrations.

Cultural critics of the left have expressed surprise at the links between jazz and the left during what became the cold war. In The Land without Music Andrew Blake identifies but does little to interrogate the "odd conjunction [of New Orleans jazz, CND, and trade union marches], given the importance of the Communist Party to union militancy, and the Soviet hatred of jazz" (1997, 114). Writing of the slightly earlier relation between the Communist Party and the Musicians' Union in Britain, Kevin Morgan notes "the contingencies of communist politics in a period swinging, if one can so put it, from a broad-minded progressivism to the bigotries of Zhdanovism" (1998, 124). It may be that both Blake and Morgan overlook the contribution of the non-state left, the anarchists rather than communists, for instance, to radical activism and alternative cultures. Overall, though, what is striking about the effort of cultural studies to read traditional and revivalist jazz is its limited nature, and its lack of interest in the music's political role. I want to interrogate and chart this "odd conjunction," to use Blake's term, to explore what may well be, after all, a leftist marching music of the streets. In doing so I acknowledge the lengthy tradition of music and mobilization in Britain-Stephen Yeo has argued that the "main cultural thrust of the early socialist movement was in music," for example (quoted in Waters 1990, 97). Early British activists aimed to create "a socialist musical structure that stressed the importance of communal participation and offered a unique blend of songs written for the movement and works appropriated from other cultural and political traditions" (Waters 1990, 189). This much is evident in the presence at socialist gatherings like May Day festivals of organizations such as the Clarion Vocal Union (founded 1894) of radical choirs (Waters 1990, 121), or in the songs sung at socialist Sunday schools in Scotland. More pertinent for the discussion of Aldermaston is the British brass band tradition of street music, as exemplified from Victorian times by both the Salvation Army and local industrial bands, mainly in northern England. Trevor Herbert notes that the industrial bands formed a strong working-class music movement and that this "became aligned with events such as May Day, trade-union demonstrations, and miners' galas, which epitomized working-class identity and behaviour" (Herbert 2000, 67).

Clearly there are ambivalent political positions within both critical readings and the pleasures of New Orleans jazz, which may have contributed to a suspicion of it by cultural studies. This ambivalence is delineated by Robert Hewison, who identifies New Orleans jazz of the 1950s as managing to be both conservative and anti-elitist. On the one hand, the writers "John Wain, Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin developed a side-line as jazz critics. The critical conservatism of their poetry coloured their preference for traditional jazz," a preference also displayed in John Osborne's work, in particular Look Back in Anger. On the other hand, traditional and revivalist musicians produced "an earthiness, a rawness, that was definitely, to use Nancy Mitford's phrase, non-U, and it had a proletarian, non-Mandarin vigour" (Hewison 1981, 114-15). For the British left, the cultural politics of jazz in the 1940s and particularly the 1950s were influenced by the revivalist movement in the United States a decade or two earlier. Projects collecting and recording traditional and folk music were organized by the Library of Congress, and in 1938 Jelly Roll Morton recorded his New Orleans classics from twenty years before for Alan Lomax. That same year other veterans such as Sidney Bechet were also recorded. In 1945 the first recordings of New Orleans parade brass bands were made, by William Russell. Recently researched recordings and publications contributed as well, and inspired groups of young white musicians to revive the early music, most notably perhaps Lu Watters's Yerba Buena Band in California. Bernard Gendron writes that "the anticommercial stance of many of the revivalists played into, and reinforced, their promotion of authenticity, folklorism, tradition, and affect, set against a vaguely left-wing, antifascist background" (Gendron 1995, 50).

The mass as well as specialist media were swiftly successful in the national and international spread of this new-old music (as we will see, the first formal British parade band would be called the Omega). In England in 1943, George Webb's Dixielanders surprised everyone with their authentic-sounding music, played on Monday evenings at the Red Barn public house in Barneshurst, Kent. According to Jim Godbolt, most of the band "had worked in the local Vickers-Armstrong factory. Sociologically minded critics with various left-wing and anarchist associations saw this as an expression of working class culture and likened the band's endeavours to those of the early us black jazzmen, whose art flourished despite their subservience, socially and economically, to the white boss. The Young Communist League promoted the Dixielanders in a series of concerts at the Memorial Hall, Farringdon Street under the banner of the Challenge Jazz Club. In their paper, Challenge, they heavily emphasized the socio-political overtones of this phenomenon" (Godbolt 1984, 202-3).

There were class implications in the scene as it developed through and after the war, often revolving around working-class communist organization. Some communists received the Dixielanders as "authentic jazz, arising from the English proletariat and offering a new vocabulary for its attenuated musical traditions." Others recognized that the anti-commercialism and avowed amateurism of Webb and most of his band effectively subverted the Musicians' Union's continuing campaign on minimum payment, so that ironically there was a "threat of this new people's music to musicians' unionism" (Morgan 1998, 136). In Melbourne musicians such as Graeme Bell and Ade Monsbourgh had been forging their own links between early jazz, wider cultural formations, and leftist politics, cultural work that would have an important impact on postwar jazz in Britain. Their magazine Jazz Notes "increasingly urged the claim of pre-commercial folk authenticity, and became a musical rallying point for artistic and political groups who opposed what was felt to be the philistine commercialism of Australian culture" (Johnson 2000, 15). When the Graeme Bell Australian Jazz Band made its extraordinary journey to Europe, finally to London in 1947, it was at the original invitation of the Eureka Youth League, a communist-affiliated organization in Australia, to attend the first international communist World Youth Festival in Prague (see Johnson 2000, 147-57). Its wildly successful appearance in Czechoslovakia was very well timed by the band, for jazz more generally perhaps, as Johnson notes: "the three years between the end of World War Two and the Communist coup retain a wonderful aura of freedom and possibility.... The soundtrack of that ... is the dixieland which was introduced by the Australian band led by Graeme Bell" (2000, 136). In Bell's trajectory jazz is initially embraced by communism, only to be ideologically repositioned subsequently: "These circumstances had invested the music with an aura of subversive anti-totalitarianism, implicated in complex ways with the idea of local sovereignty.... The Bell band virtually started the jazz movement as such in Czechoslovakia, providing a working model for a music already deeply inscribed with socio-political meanings" (Johnson 2000, 149, 150).


Excerpted from CIRCULAR BREATHING by George McKay Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Introduction : jazz, Europe, Americanization 1
Ch. 1 New Orleans jazz, protest (Aldermaston), and carnival (Beaulieu) 45
Ch. 2 Whiteness and (British) jazz 87
Ch. 3 Jazz of the black Atlantic and the commonwealth 129
Ch. 4 The politics of performance of improvisation and contemporary jazz in the 1960s and 1970s 191
Ch. 5 From "male music" to feminist improvising 243
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)